ESSAY
The Bay Area's 'Activists' shook up poetry in the '50s

Cynthia Haven

Sunday, September 4, 2005

 
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March 1949. W.H. Auden was on the hot seat. He'd been editing the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series for three years -- an annual honor that introduced young, unknown poets to the American public, under the formidable aegis of the Yale University Press.

But the press bigwigs were getting antsy. Auden's choices were impenetrable and unorthodox. Sales were sagging. And, they feared, Auden was not taking the job as seriously as he ought. A meeting was arranged in Auden's messy Manhattan apartment. Auden didn't resign gracefully. Hints were dropped. Auden stuck by his guns.

Two of Auden's last three choices were maverick poets from Oakland. Twenty-five-year-old Robert Horan and 38-year-old Rosalie Moore (she benefited from the new requirements that raised the age limit for a "Yale Younger Poet" to 40) were both members of "the Activists," a close-knit but little-known Bay Area poetry movement that began in 1936.

The Activists were proteges of Lawrence Hart, a peripatetic teacher of writing classes with no credentials except his immense amount of reading. Prior to his incarnation as poetry guru, he'd canned fish in Alaska, worked as a roughneck on a Southern California oil rig, had a short stint as a reporter and, even earlier, organized a revolt against compulsory military training at his Santa Rosa high school.

When it came to poetry, however, Hart was an empiricist: He systematically studied what worked, what didn't. He'd digested the entire oeuvre of scores of poets, from first line to last (during the 1950s, he was an assistant to Chronicle Book Editor Joseph Henry Jackson). He marked the lines that were most intense and memorable, meticulously typed them into lists in dozens of notebooks, and analyzed them. His conclusions formed the basis of his teaching: The poem should be "active" in every line -- not lapsing into prose, explanatory detail or filler material. Brilliance was more important than sense; it was better to risk chaos than dullness. Creating obscurity was better than perpetuating boredom.

Hart was a late convert to Modernism, which burst like sunlight upon the musty world of late Victorian and Georgian verse. Hart had wanted to extend its daylight into the rest of the century; hence, the Activists.

What is amazing is how quickly the Activists seemed to disappear into the darkness. Activist Jeanne McGahey was featured in "Five Young American Poets" in 1941 (and was Mrs. Hart by 1944), and the Yale books followed in the same decade. The Activists were featured in a special issue in America's pre- eminent poetry journal, Poetry, in 1951, and a special half-issue feature in 1958.

After that, the movement seemed to peter out into op-ed debates about the Beats in the pages of The Chronicle. Even the Activist name was co-opted by politics. "Lawrence [Hart] was kind of 'It' till the Beats came along," says East Bay poet Fred Ostrander, who joined the Activists in the early 1950s, when Hart was teaching a UC Extension course. "They just swept him away -- which was partially his own doing, because he wasn't an easy guy to get along with."

Poet Judith Yamamoto, who has published her work in such high-ranking journals as the Partisan Review, Ploughshares and Parnassus, as well as being a recent recipient of a Marin Arts Council grant, remembers Hart as almost "diabolical." She first encountered him at the College of Marin in an early 1970s night class on creative writing. Hart came in late, "an old man in a long overcoat." Head lowered, he "shuffled down the aisle" to the front of the class. Her apprehension quickly changed to terror. Hart ran a sort of poetry boot camp, deliberately breaking down old verbal structures of convention, sentimentality and cliche that clog the mental arteries like cholesterol. There was no room for writer's block. There wasn't time for it.

Reading his students' papers, he would slam them down on the desk, condemning the "preset formulae of words that naturally come out of the pen," Yamamoto recalls. It got worse. His trademark, apart from direct sensory reporting, was the "two-minute sonnet," in which Hart would supply the rhymes. Hart would then bark out the syllables as his students scrambled to write a Shakespearean sonnet in a mere 140 seconds, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, rhyme!"

Yamamoto became a fan. However unconventional his techniques, as a teacher he was "really inspiring," she says. "At the end of the [first] class, I was absolutely on Cloud Nine. He had a way of getting you so excited about what words could do. I've never had that experience with anyone else."

Whatever his methods, the effects were extraordinary. Take Robert Horan, for example, who had joined Hart's original group as a 13-year-old high school student and published a poem in the Yale Review two years later. Horan's poetry was magical, melodic, and Auden had been entranced. Horan's "Little City," about a spider, is almost hallucinogenic:

By evening the web is heavy with monsters,

bright constellation of wasps and bees,

breathless, surrendered.

Bronze skeletons dangle on the wires

and a thin wing flutters.

The medieval city hangs in its stars.

"It seems to me to be quite a find," Auden had crowed after choosing the manuscript, "A Beginning." "Mr. Horan is fortunate in that not only has he been granted an exciting and unique vision of the world, but also ... discovered early the kind of poetic treatment for which it called," he wrote in his introduction to the book.

Although Auden praised "lines of great and original beauty" in Rosalie Moore's work, even he admitted that he didn't quite get some of Moore's more obscure passages -- "the tall wrenched elephants of other time" or "our pierced insects of sight." Auden conceded that there are dangers in Activism - - "that the detail may be cultivated at the expense of the whole poem, or the attempt to maintain maximum intensity at every moment may defeat itself."

Many will conclude that Moore is sometimes nuts, but she's never bland, as the opening of this poem, "Shipwreck," from "The Grasshopper's Man," demonstrates:

Watching, watching from shore:

Wind, and the shore lifting,

The hands raising on wind

And all the elements rising ...

Calmly the wreck rides,

Turns like leviathan or log ...

The group received kisses and punches. William Carlos Williams wrote them a letter wishing "more power to you." (Hart returned the favor by calling Williams "a minor-minor poet.") Princeton's Theodore Weiss, eminent poet and editor of Quarterly Review of Literature, encouraged and published them until his own death in 2003. San Francisco Renaissance poet Robert Duncan criticized them, saying that Hart had little understanding of the problems of poetry, and though he had collected "a remarkable number of interesting poets," he had little to impart but "the claptrap of bells, honey, coins and sensory machinery."

But Auden was no fool, and his imprimatur carried weight. His taste was unerring and he was "an authentic genius," according to Louise Bogan, the poet groomed to replace him in 1949, the year he didn't resign. After an unresolved lunch and meeting, Auden left Manhattan for his customary six months in Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. He went on to make more popular choices in the next two years -- Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin. In fact, he carried on for another decade, choosing such poets as John Ashbery, John Hollander and William Dickey. These choices found fame and lifetime careers, confirming Auden as kingmaker.

But what of the Activists? Hart died in 1996, at 96. Perhaps his fierce sense of mission kept him alive for so long. Horan's book , "A Beginning," was his end. Horan, chums with Giancarlo Menotti, Samuel Barber and Pauline Kael, was a one-book wonder. He never published another, and seems mostly remembered for his libretti nowadays. Moore and Jeanne McGahey gaze at us from book jackets, with their graying hair and grandmotherly faces -- the former cheery and round, the latter more sternly matriarchal -- as the years progressed. Moore died in 2001; McGahey in 1995. The brilliant Robert Barlow, a Mesoamerican archaeologist and a Guggenheim fellow as well as a poet, ended his life most hauntingly in Mexico on New Year's Day 1951, with 26 capsules of Seconal. He left a note pinned on his door in Mayan pictographs: "Do not disturb me. I want to sleep a long time."

Cyberspace offers new opportunities for renewed life and the immortalization of yellowing texts, however, and Hart and McGahey's son, John Hart, an award-winning poet and environmental writer, has established a Web site, www.lawrencehart.org, and carries the torch for lively poetry in workshops he holds in his San Rafael home.

Will a major college or university -- perhaps UC Berkeley or Mills College, where Hart once taught -- purchase the archives? Or will they be stored forever in "The Lawrence Hart Institute," which is a fancy way of saying his son's spare room? So far no one has offered.

Will there ever be an anthology of Activist poets -- or will their work remain the province of Bay Area literary connoisseurs trolling Abebooks.com and Amazon.com? University of California Press and Yale University Press have already turned down the opportunity, perhaps fearing Hart was promoting himself, although, the steady, unprepossessing man seems the least likely man in the world to do so.

Cynthia Haven also writes for Washington Post Book World and the Times Literary Supplement. "Peter Dale in Conversation With Cynthia Haven" was published this spring in London.

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March 1949. W.H. Auden was on the hot seat. He'd been editing the